When a Tragedy Hits Your Hometown

Where you were born and raised may not be where you end up living most of your life. We have become a mobile society, with people constantly on the move to find better jobs, more opportunities and, eventually, a place for retirement. But when tragedy strikes, something pulls us back to those roots, even if we haven’t visited our former home for decades.

That’s where I am right now. I was born and raised in Amsterdam, New York, as one publication called it, “a former mill town on the Mohawk River west of Albany.” I moved away after graduating from college and, except for visits to family and friends as well as attending several high school reunions, haven’t gone back in many, many years. But when the news hit of the limousine crash in Schoharie, New York, we learned that at least six of the victims lived in Amsterdam, less than an hour away from where the crash occurred. The other victims lived in neighboring towns – Watertown, Johnstown, Colonie, Troy – all places very familiar to me. 

The phone calls and the texts began, with members of my family and friends, those living in the area and those far away, who needed to connect, needed to talk about what had happened. There were posts on Facebook from my high school friends. I didn’t know any of the young people who died, but I know people who are related to them, who knew them, and who now are mourning them, as we all are.

Catastrophic tragedies like this limousine crash are not supposed to happen to people who live in small towns like Amsterdam, except that they do. Hearing about the deaths of so many young people touches us all. But when you know that some of these young adults lived in your hometown, shopped in the stores you once knew, walked the streets you once walked, and sent their children to the public schools where you were a student, you can visualize what their lives were like and what their futures would have promised. Small cities like Amsterdam need young people to stay and contribute their energies and talents. Now my hometown has been robbed of what those lives might have meant.

Our local newspaper, The Amsterdam Recorder, listed those who had died and described them in much more detail than the national papers I have access to in New York and Washington, D.C. The following information comes from that story.

I learned about Amy Steenburg who, along with her husband, Axel, 29, was headed in that limousine with her friends to a brewery in Cooperstown to celebrate her 30th birthday. Besides Alex, Amy’s three sisters – Allison King, 31, of Ballston Spa, Abigail Jackson, 34, along with her husband, Adam, 34, and Mary Dyson, 33, along with her husband, Robert, 34 – perished with her. Amy had just been married in June and in a Facebook post had said that she loved her husband “more than words can say.” Axel’s brother, Richard, 34, who lived in Johnstown, died, too.

Another Johnstown resident, Michael Ukaj, 34, was a former Marine who served a tour in Iraq. Amanda Halse, 26, was with her boyfriend, Patrick Cushing, an Amsterdam native. Amanda’s sister, Karina, who wasn’t in the limo, is understandably, heartbroken. 

Matthew Coons, 27, was described as a weightlifting aficionado and his girlfriend, Savannah Burses, 24, hoped to pursue a law degree. Erin, 34, and Shane McGowan, 30, were married in June and lived in Amsterdam. Amanda Rivenburg, 29, of Colonie, worked for Living Resources, a nonprofit that works with people who have disabilities. Rachael Cavosie, 30, of Waterford, was called “a soul that touched so many lives.” 

The two victims not in the limo were identified as Brian Hough, 46, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, and his father-in-law, Jams Schnurr. They were standing in the parking lot of Apple Barrel Country Store and Cafe, a popular destination for locals and tourists in the fall. The intersection that the limo charged through, the T-junction of Route 30 and Route 30A, has seen many accidents before, but nothing like this one that claimed 20 lives. The driver of the limo who died was identified as Scott Lisinicchia. 

Even if we’ve left our hometowns, the connections, the memories remain with us. Now those memories are filled with sadness as we remember so many young people whose lives were cut short much too soon.

About Charlene Giannetti (257 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "19 Daniel Highway," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.